I first became aware of the great jazz pianist Red Garland through following the music of one of my favorite saxophonists, John Coltrane. At that point in the development of my ‘jazz ears’, I had yet to cultivate a great appreciation of the jazz pianist in general, finding myself instead much more intrigued by the horn players. But listening to Garland changed all that. His playing inspired and delighted me and made me realize how exciting great jazz piano can be. Since those early days I have listened to many, many jazz pianists, but I always seem to compare those experiences to my first exposure to the music of Red Garland - an epitomizing example of how I think jazz piano should be played.
William McKinley "Red" Garland (a one-time professional boxer with 35 prizefights under his belt) actually started off his musical career as a clarinetist who later switched to alto saxophone before eventually finding his way to the piano. He came to prominence in the mid-1950s as part of the original Miles Davis Quintet (along with Coltrane on sax, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums). His work on the Davis sessions led to trio recordings for Prestige that helped widen his popularity. Later, after he and Coltrane had both left Davis’ group, the two hooked up again for gigs and Prestige recording sessions, each taking turns as leader (they both eventually rejoined Davis).
This collection of Garland’s quintet recordings consists of six tunes, all recorded in 1957 and 1961. Two different quintets are represented here - one with Coltrane on tenor sax, Donald Byrd on trumpet, George Joyner on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums ("Billie’s Bounce", "Solitude", "Soul Junction" & "Our Delight") and one with Richard Williams on trumpet, Oliver Nelson on tenor sax, Peck Morrison on bass and Charlie Persip on drums ("Soft Winds" & "On Green Dolphin Street"). It’s interesting to see how the different musicians (particularly the horn players) react to Garland’s playing.
One of the things that I feel has always separated Garland from many of the other jazz pianists I’ve heard is just how much of the blues there is in his playing. Certainly it wasn’t unusual for jazz pianists, especially during the ‘50s, to come to jazz from the blues, but the challenges of playing bebop took many of them away from their blues roots and diluted that influence in their playing. This was not so with Garland. Everything he plays is heavily drenched in that ‘down home’, straight-from-your-soul sound, yet played with a precision that the most articulate classical pianist would envy (a prime example of this is his amazing 8-minute solo on the slow blues "Soul Junction"). Not only was he capable of playing beautiful single-note runs, but his stylistic use of block chords influenced a generation of pianists to come.
This CD, clocking in at just over 54 minutes, is still much too short - when the music is this good, one can’t help but want more. But it’s a great introduction to a legendary pianist (and two legendary quintets) that have never really received the level of recognition that they truly deserve.